Stunt man Eddie Powell, director Freddie Francis and actresses Hazel Court, Janette Scott and Janina Faye were among the Guest line-up for the 10th Festival of Fantastic Films this September. Having been held every year in Manchester, UK, throughout the 1990s, and though with attendances of only a few hundred, the Festival has not only become an event of national significance for British fantastic film fans, but regularly sees pros and fans from such places as the US or Japan. Indeed in recent years the event has seen premièred a number of independent movies and this year was no exception with the première of Green Fingers (dir. Paul Cotgrove and starring Ingrid Pitt and Janina Faye).
So how come the success? Some of the Festival’s organisers have their roots in main-stream fandom and were responsible for a number of SF conventions in the 1970s including a UK national Eastercon. (Indeed some of the attendees are known to be Knights of St Fanthony, an old and respected British fan order dating from the 1960s.) However all on the Fest’s committee have considerable knowledge of SF, fantasy and horror movies. So while the UK national convention has seen its film component decline throughout the decade the Fest’s committee have put their expertise to good use. They recognise that video and multi-channel home TV has saturated viewers with contemporary and mass-market films, and so they have sought to provide a more specialist service. First, the Festival’s mainstays are three parallel programme streams which, apart from Guest interviews, consist of reel-to-reel film screenings. Second, old films rarely seen today take priority as well as some fairly (it has to be said) dire ‘B’ movies. Third, recent films are shown that don’t make the out-of town circuit, some of which are truly excellent. Finally, the Fest is able to screen many independent and amateur movies due to the two competitions it runs for such movie makers, the entries for which are screened in a fourth programme stream and attract entries from many countries. Such a fantastic film cocktail is impossible to obtain from either TV or your local video store. So add a sprinkling of guests, not to mention a few pros among the regular attendees (for instance actor/director Steve Barkett came back this year following his 1998 Guest appearance), and you have a winning combination for serious buffs. For a first-time attendee one might wonder why the Festival is not bigger? This is because the Festival organisers deliberately want a more intimate event so much of the advertising is by word and mouth or the Festival’s web site (but then you have to know to search for it). Even so new-comers (having gone to the effort of seeking out the Fest) are positively welcomed.
So what is a ‘fantastic film’? Well the organisers, it has to be said, positively love the Frankenstein and Dracula type movies so there are always a few of those. Then there are the rarely shown ‘B’ type movie. These can be entertaining either simply for their datedness or because they are so bad, but equally a few do explore a concept interestingly or have a certain charm. This year’s dated surprise was the comedy fantasy Zotz (1962) about a charmed amulet that attracts the interest of communist agents. But more recent films on 35mm are screened too. The 1998 Deep Rising was packed with effects and action, being a by-the-numbers sea monster meets armed terrorist force on ocean liner job - truly outrageous. For fantasy/horror fans there was over-the-top Modern Vampires (1998) with Rod Steiger, while for those into history, and who had never seen it on the big screen (or in its entirety as it mainly appears in snippets in film documentaries) there was Trip to the Moon (1902) dir. George Méliés.
There is not space to list the 40+ films shown, or additionally all the competition entries. However a welcome screening at the opening ceremony was the first ever Star Wars short spoof (made the year of the original’s release) called Hardware Wars. And even the sprinkling of old favourites had something special. King Kong had the original musical overture as performed at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre for the 1933 première, while the screening of It Came From Outer Space (1953) was of course the 3-D version.
So what of the guests? Among the highlights was The Day of the Triffids reunion, which naturally followed a screening of the film itself. Actress Janette Scott chatted with Freddie Francis (director of the lighthouse sequences) and Janina Faye (who was 12 at the time of the 1963 film). During the course of the film it was revealed that the original film was in fact a splicing together of two productions. Apparently the plot of the original footage never reached a conclusion and so the lighthouse sub-plot was subsequently added and shot in just a month and a half. Other insights included the budget constraints which meant that the original mechanical triffids were later replaced by Spaniards in suits. Freddie Francis (better known as the director of The Innocents) himself recognised that The Day of the Triffids ‘was never going to be a good movie’. ‘Re-shooting is a bad signal for a good movie,’ and so he asked not to be cited on the film’s credits. Another consequence of interweaving two separate films was that Janette Scott never met her co-star Howard Keel during shooting.
Actress Hazel Court reviewed a colourful career in another interview. Her film credits have included Masque of the Red Death, Curse of Frankenstein and Devil Girl From Mars. Apparently she was paid an extra £2,000 (UK pounds) in 1958 for appearing topless in The Man Who Could Cheat Death, and was short-listed for co-starring roles in a number of TV series including that of Emma Peel in The Avengers. This last was largely due to her having previously learned karate for Shakedown. However she did appear in guest roles in TV episodes of Danger Man, Ghost Squad and The Wild, Wild West.
One of the most enthralling interviews was with the stunt man Eddie Powell. Name an SF film, indeed any film, made in England between 1946 and 1985 and it is almost certain that Freddie was involved in the stunt work. In fact Eddie was the original alien in Alien, and not as cited in the credits: that stuntman apparently found the alien costume too constraining and left the set. Eddie was called to take his place but even Eddie asked for modifications to be made to Giger’s original design so as to ensure better stability and mobility. Eddie’s biggest fear, greater than his surprising fear of heights, is being asked to do dialogue. ‘I am not an actor’, he said, but they did keep on asking him to do lines (such as in Dalek Invasion Earth).
Then there were the competitions, both for best amateur and best independent production. It must be said that the standard of entries has risen over the years the Fest has been running, so that today many are of excellent quality and submitted from many countries from the US in the west to Japan in the east. One independent that was commended was by Joie Gharrity (US) for the teenage horror The Grail. That 35 minute film cost just $40,000 (US dollars) to shoot and has attracted the interest of Hollywood to the extent that it may be re-shot as a pilot for a TV series. Though commended The Grail was pipped by the Australian short Succubus, while the prize for best full length independent went to the Hungarian Alchemist and the Virgin.
The past decade has seen the Fest grow both in terms of the guests it attracts, a number of whom subsequently return as attendees, and in the distance fans travel to attend. So what of the future? It has to be said that this year’s closing ceremony saw the organising committee raise some questions as to the Fest’s future. They each appeared to be in two minds; on one hand wanting to continue, on the other recognising that they are getting long in the tooth. From a number of comments after, what was clear to many in the audience is that the organisers do need to start grooming younger committee members so that in a few years the founders can take more of a back seat. Equally, it could be seen that they are somewhat reluctant to let go of what is essentially their creation. How this conflict is reconciled will determine whether or not the Festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2009.
A version of this article appeared in Locus magazine (Autumn 1999)
For information on the 11th Festival of Fantastic Films contact: The Society for Fantastic Films, 95 Meadowgate Road, Salford,
Lancashire, M6 8EN.
The Festival's website is at www.fantastic-films.com
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